Jean Rabier, one of the great cinematographers of the French New Wave, has died. A multi-talented figure who was as comfortable in eye-searing color as in inky black-and-white, Rabier was a part of the era-defining movement from the beginning, serving as a camera operator on François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. From there, he would go on to shoot such classics as Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and Agnès Varda’s Cleo From 5 To 7, and develop a decades-long collaboration with director Claude Chabrol, for whom he lensed dozens of features and TV projects. Rabier died in southern France on February 15. He was 88.
Born in the small medieval town of Montfort-l’Amaury, Rabier began as a documentary cameraman, entering the French film industry in the ’50s as an assistant to the great Henri Decaë, longtime cinematographer to Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the French New Wave’s forebears and biggest influences. When the New Wave directors (many of them former critics) started to make their debut features at the end of the decade, many of them hired Decaë as cinematographer, which is how Rabier working behind the scenes on The 400 Blows and on Chabrol’s debut, Le Beau Serge, as well as on Elevator To The Gallows, the debut fiction feature by New Wave contemporary Louis Malle.
Within a couple of years, Rabier was promoted to director of photography. He worked exclusively with New Wave directors, shooting projects for Varda, Demy, and Jean-Luc Godard. From the mid-’60s on, Rabier worked exclusively with the intensely prolific Chabrol, who was both the most conventional of the New Wave’s ex-critic directors, and the most adaptable. Their 40-year creative partnership covered everything from the muted restraint of the director’s small-town suspense movies to the outré expressionism of unclassifiable projects like Bluebeard and Dr. M. Rabier retired in 1991, after completing Chabrol’s adaptation of Madame Bovary.